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By Betsy Dexter Dyer


In December of 2017, Everett Otis Dyer of Rehoboth donated 433 acres of wetlands and uplands to the Rehoboth Land Trust for permanent preservation. Much of the area is the historically and ecologically important Squannakonk Swamp that occupies the central part of Rehoboth. It was the largest singly owned property in Rehoboth at the time of donation and effectively tripled the holdings of the Land Trust.  Dyer requested that the property be named for his late friend and mentor, Roy Wheaton Horton. How that property came to be purchased by Dyer, why he thought it was worth preserving, and why it was named for Horton is a story

worth telling.


The Roy Wheaton Horton Preserve

Rehoboth Land Trust


Everett Otis Dyer moved to his family’s farm in Rehoboth in 1949, just after graduating from University of Maine and also serving aboard a submarine in the Pacific at the close of World War II. In the family since 1818, Great Meadow Hill Farm presented many challenges to Dyer, who at age 22 was soon to be married. The buildings of the farm had begun to deteriorate and fields were beginning to grow up in brush. The homestead built in 1746 needed significant restoration.

   Dyer was fortunate to find mentors in Rehoboth, wise in the ways of fields, pastures, and woodlots and farm buildings.  One of these was Roy W. Horton whom Dyer met in 1958. Horton (then in his late 50s) was from an old Rehoboth family (distantly related to Dyer) and was an old-time “swamp yankee.”

    Rehoboth abounded (and still does) in historic cedar and maple swamps, often divided into small parcels used as family woodlots especially when frozen over in winter. Roy had worked in many of those swamp lots with teams of horses and oxen.

     In 1994, Dyer ended up writing a book, Swamp Yankee, mostly about Roy Horton and his various activities in the historic swamps of Rehoboth. Dyer described swamp yankees as those who reside near the swampy wooded areas of southeastern New England and who whose subsistence activities include maintaining active woodlots. 

Robert Frost, one of E. Otis Dyer’s favorite poets, wrote about swamps in “The Wood-pile” (excerpted here):

 

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,

I paused and said, 'I will turn back from here.

No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.'

The hard snow held me, save where now and then

One foot went through. The view was all in lines

Straight up and down of tall slim trees

Too much alike to mark or name a place by

So as to say for certain I was here

Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.

The historically and ecologically important Squannakonk Swamp

in Rehoboth, Massachusetts

   Before those swamp yankees arrived from Europe and Great Britain, Wampanoag native Americans lived on the wild game, plants, and wood of the swamps. The largest in Rehoboth is about 400 acres and named Sqannakonk Swamp or ‘wild goose’ in the Wampanoag language.  At a northerly edge of Sqannakonk Swamp is Anawan Rock, a landmark of the King Phillip Wars.

    Dyer was also an avid reader of Henry David Thoreau who is considered by environmentalist Rod Giblett a sort of “patron saint of swamps.”  Among the many quotations from Thoreau is this:

    “My temple is the swamp… When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most impenetrable and to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum… I seemed to have reached a new world, so wild a place…far away from human society. What’s the need of visiting far-off mountains and bogs, if a half-hour’s walk will carry me into such wildness and novelty.”

    In the 1980s, Dyer became fascinated by Squannakonk Swamp and surrounding areas such as Roaring Brook Woods.  At that time the land was highly divided into mostly small parcels. Some had been in families for many generations and others had owners unknown, having been forgotten.

    It would be a daunting task for anyone to find dozens of old descriptions and deeds, research the titles and trace the owners of every parcel. Yet Dyer, a land surveyor, was in a unique position to be able to do just that, albeit laboriously as a sort of avocation over the course of almost four decades.

   Eventually Dyer’s son E.Otis Dyer Jr joined the surveying business and also joined the project of researching and then buying in piecemeal nearly every parcel of Squannakonk Swamp, as well as some adjacent areas.  It was a labor of love for both.   

     It was also an enormous puzzle that took the form of a large map that covered a table upstairs in Dyer’s survey office. Each parcel was outlined with colored pencils and filled with hand written notes concerning the histories of ownership. By the end of the project around 2016, Dyer was 90 years old and the owner of about 450 acres wetlands and uplands including  Squannakonk Swamp, Little Squannakonk, Bad Luck Swamp and Roaring Brook Woods.  Some of it was co-owned with his son Otis Jr. who died unexpectedly that year at age 56. 

    Perhaps the project would have gone further as Otis Jr was beginning to acquire parcels in Munwhague Swamp at the time of his death. It had always been the intent of father and son to donate the entire assembled property for conservation in perpetuity. And so, in 2017 the time was right and negotiations began with the Rehoboth Land Trust. 

     Look at any topological map or satellite photograph of Rehoboth to see what a significant part of the town is comprised of Squannakonk and the surrounding undeveloped property. Dyer, an historian by avocation, loves the area for its historical importance. However, as his daughter and a biologist, I can attest to the extraordinary ecological importance of any area of that size that will remain protected from development. The donated land includes wetlands and uplands with diverse forest habitats, and is a uniquely unfragmented refuge for biodiversity. Southeastern New England was once mostly farms and woodlands but now is filled with suburbs, towns and cities and fragmented natural areas.  There are few properties of the size of Squannakonk remaining and far fewer that are destined to be donated and preserved.



Made on a Mac
The work of the Rehoboth Land Trust (RLT) is supported through the volunteer efforts and generous donations of its members and friends. To date, the RLT has conserved nearly 700 acres, provided public access to open space and continues to work with property owners to preserve the landscape and conserve natural resources that benefit the community. The RLT is a 501(C)(3) organization. Join our membership, as an Individual ($25), a Family ($50), a Sustainer ($100), or support us at a level of your choice. Please mail your check to Rehoboth Land Trust, PO Box 335, Rehoboth, MA. 02769. Checks should be made payable to Rehoboth Land Trust. We are always looking for volunteers to help with everything from trail care to digital expertise. Thank you for joining us in these important efforts.
 
By Beverly Baker, Chairman Rehoboth Cemetery Commission


While doing research on Rehoboth’s Historic Burial Grounds, I came across a curious note in George Henry Tilton’s Book, A History of Rehoboth, Massachusetts.

    Mr. Tilton describes the Hix Cemetery on Brook Street and mentions that two Civil War veterans are buried there, “Charles Miller and Alexander Williams (colored).”  Tilton used the racial designation of the time period.

    I quickly turned to the chapter in Tilton’s book that lists Rehoboth Soldiers and Sailors of the Civil War. There he repeats the record from the Commonwealth -- “Williams, Alexander. Seaman (colored). Died at Rehoboth almshouse. Buried in Hix cemetery, Oak Swamp.”  It didn’t mention anything else about his service.

     I don’t know what piqued by curiosity, but I needed to find out more about Alexander Williams.

    Our Rehoboth Veterans Services Officer does not have Alexander Williams on his lists of veterans flag placements, not in Hix Burial Ground or anywhere else in Rehoboth.  To me, this means that no one has ever applied for a grave marker from the federal government.  It appears Williams had few resources as he lived and died at the Alms House, yet he was a veteran.  

      I made a trip to the historical research center at the Carpenter Museum.  They had Tilton’s notes on his book and more information which yielded more clues.

      Tilton’s notes mention that Mr. Williams had lived with family in New Bedford and that he had a wife. Tilton also states Mr. Williams died at the alms house in Rehoboth and is buried at the Hix cemetery.  The author looked for a marker and found none listed, and thus concludes there probably isn’t one – yet.

     Historical records show the marriage in Middleborough, Massachusetts of Alexander Williams to Katie Mack. He is age 68, she is only 41. He is black, she is white. In this record, Alexander is a laborer.  The record shows he was born in Baltimore, Maryland and his parents are Alexander and Sophie Williams. Katie was born in New Hampshire.

     An 1880 Census of New Bedford shows Alexander and Catherine living at 5 Elm Street, close to the waterfront. He is a laborer, age 58, Catherine is 33. I believe this couple is the same one that married, legally, 8 years later.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts abolished anti-miscegenation in 1843.           

     If Alexander was indeed from Baltimore, Maryland as stated in his marriage record in 1888, this marriage would still have been illegal there.  Maryland was the first state to ban inter-racial marriages in 1664. The ban was not overturned there until 1967, over three hundred years later.  Massachusetts, however was a much more progressive state, and is even today.

     I began to search for records, going further back.  An 1865 Census of New Bedford show a Williams family. John A. Williams, age 58, married, born in “An unknown Southern State”, occupation “seaman”.  An 1860 Census of New Bedford shows a Williams family, the oldest male being John A. Williams, born in state “unknown”, married and age 40. Occupation “laborer”.  This family could be the one I was looking for. John A. could be Alexander, or maybe just a relative. The records were enlightening either way.

     Perhaps it was best for a black man not to say what state you were from in the 1860’s.  The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 provided slave owners more leverage in recapturing their “property” and imposed a harsh penalty for anyone caught harboring slaves. 

     Though the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a Personal Liberties Law to try and protect runaway slaves, such laws were superseded by the federal law and would not win in court.  Eventually, but not until 1864, the Fugitive Slave Acts were repealed by Congress. Slavery had been banned in Massachusetts since 1783.

     Could Alexander and his family have been fugitives? Even if they were innocent free people of color, up until 1864 bounty hunters from the South, with contrived affidavits, could arrest and return them as captured slaves.

     Massachusetts military records show Alexander Williams enlisted in the Navy at Plymouth, MA in 1864. The record shows his place of residence as Rehoboth, born in Baltimore, Maryland. There are notes about his height; 5 feet, 6 and 1/3 inches tall, black with black curly hair.  Age is said to be 34, though 44 is likely more accurate. His occupation is listed as a cook. There are notes about the scars he has on his body, one on each thigh, some on each arm and one above his left eyebrow.

     In his life after the war, he and his wife found their way to Middleborough where they were married on August 18, 1888.  One month earlier that year, the town of Middleborough charged the town of Rehoboth for the couple’s care at the Alms House in Middleborough. It seems at some point, they were moved to the Alms House in Rehoboth (aka Rehoboth Asylum) where Alexander died.

     Historical vital records from Ancestry.com show the beautiful handwriting of the Rehoboth Town Clerk in 1888.  Williams, Alexander (Male, Af) died of dropsy on October 14, 1888, age 69.  His occupation is listed as sailor. His wife Catherine died in Lakeville, Massachusetts on December 1, 1894, widow, age 47. Her occupation at the time was housekeeper.

     I wonder if Alexander even knew when he was born. Was his antebellum life in Massachusetts fraught with fear of being returned to the South? Was Baltimore just something to tell the census takers and records keepers? How did he come to live in Rehoboth, MA?  Where did all those scars come from? I guess we will never really know.

     The Rehoboth Cemetery Commission along with the Veterans Services Agent will discuss applying to National Cemetery Administration for a gravestone to be placed in Hix Cemetery for this man who lived and was buried in Rehoboth so many years ago.

     Alexander Williams -  a black man from a Southern state, possible runaway slave, husband, laborer, sailor, cook, and Civil War veteran.  Rest in peace.


Image above: 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, litograph by Kurz and Allison, 1890. The 54th Regiment was the first African-American regiment organized in the northern states during the Civil War.

 

February 19, 2018

December 27, 2017

REHOBOTH HISTORY MYSTERY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALEXANDER WILLIAMS

CONSERVATION LAND DONATED BY E. OTIS DYER TO REHOBOTH LAND TRUST

By Anthony Arrigo, Rehoboth Historical Commission


The Rehoboth Historical Commission and the Rehoboth 375th Anniversary Committee have announced a house tour for May 19, 2018 featuring some of the town’s most important and beautiful 18th and 19th century homes.

    This self-guided tour will take visitors to twelve different locations around Rehoboth. Some, such as the Hornbine School and the Thomas Carpenter House, are listed on National Register of Historic Places. Others, like the Rosbotham Munroe House and Elisha Allen House, have been painstakingly restored by their current owners.

    The Rosbotham Munroe House (ca. 1700), an early center-chimney Colonial, had fallen on hard times before Karissa and Thomas Evans purchased it in July of 2014. “The home was livable but in need of restoration,” said Mrs. Evans. The couple has done a tremendous amount of work to the house since. “Moving the door and window for symmetry, renovating and expanding the kitchen, new siding, new gutters, painting the entire inside and outside, restoring the carriage barn. We did pretty much everything.”

    The Elisha Allen House (ca. 1738), a three-quarter Cape now owned by Daniel Cardoza and Michael Espinosa, was built by Deacon Eziekel Read, who obtained the land in 1738. In 1759 Elisha Allen purchased the house and 12 acres for the sum of 30 pounds. The house remained in the Allen family for 136 years thereafter. “In years past, we've always driven by this house and admired it for its honest simplicity. And we are both so thankful that we own it now. I think what we love about it the most is that it has so much character and it has lived through 280 years of Rehoboth history,” said Cardoza.

    The main structure of the Elisha Allen House was restored 40 years ago after a major fire. According to Cardoza, since moving in three and a half years ago, “We replaced the rear roof and removed skylights. We re-sided the house as it would have be done in the 18th century with 4ft clapboards married with scarf joints and secured with cut steel nails. We created gardens where there once where parking spaces for cars. We restored all the rotted sills on the plank windows. We painted the exterior along with the interior with Historic New England's 18th century color palette, and more.”

    Several of the homes on the tour also have ties directly to the Revolutionary War. One of Elisha Allen’s sons, Elisha Jr., was killed at the age of 25 in the Battle of Rhode Island serving under Colonel Thomas Carpenter. The Lydia Hix House (ca. 1800) is named for Lydia Hix (daughter of Robert Goff Jr.) and her husband Benjamin Hix, also a Revolutionary War veteran. The Laban Lake House (ca. 1790) was built by Laban Lake, described as a “Concord Minuteman” who fought at the North Bridge in the Battle of Concord and served under Captain Bliss and Colonel Walker in the Continental Army.

    The tour will run from 10:00 AM until 2:00 PM.  Registration begins at Goff Memorial Hall, 124 Bay State Road, Rehoboth Massachusetts at 9:30 AM. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased from local retailers, on the Rehoboth 375 website, or on the day of the tour at Goff Hall.


For more information go to rehoboth375.com, or send an email to rehobothhousetour@gmail.com.

 

HISTORIC HOUSE TOUR SPOTLIGHTS REHOBOTH’S 375 ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION

March 27, 2018